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Wined up
Bottles for party time

For many, wine is merely an accompaniment to food, usually at dinner; for a select few, wine is the cocktail of choice (and a few glasses with dinner don’t hurt, either). But in our society, most parties revolve around beer and hard alcohol, with wine being at best an afterthought (a couple of bottles of Concha y Toro will do the trick, right?). The truth is, though, wine can be a seductive and intoxicating party beverage. And with spring about to break, now is a good time to cover some strategies for getting down with the fruit of the vine.

The first rule for party wines, of course, is to keep the price down — you can blow people away with wines in the $7-to-$12 range. In this case, quantity counts more than quality (the exact opposite of what we usually advise when you are buying wine for a nice meal). The second rule is, you have to serve both red and white (though personally, I am fond of rosés at soirées), but in general, more red than white.

What you select is going to depend on a lot of different factors. Down at the low end of the wine spectrum, each dollar more you spend per bottle will deliver considerably more value into each glass (there is a steep quality slope). In general, stay away from “jug wines” and big bottles and stick to trusty 750 milliliter bottles (the best wines, at whatever price, always come in this size, while the Turning Leafs and their ilk seem to like the big-bottle format).

The next thing to consider is the location and “climate” of the party. If it’s outdoors and during the day, you may want fruitier and lighter wines; if it’s in a basement at night, maybe something a bit more full-bodied will get folks in the mood. In general, though, I find that fruitier wines work better than more full-bodied wines at parties. This may have to do with the facts that 1) partiers get buzzed pretty quickly, and fruity wines taste better to the drunken palate; and 2) at most parties I go to, there are lots of other intoxicants besides wine, and these, too, tend to dampen one’s ability to discern wine’s nuances. Plus, fruity is more refreshing.

You may also want to pair some food and wine. Doritos pair with no wines. Nor does salsa. Nor does fruit (not at these prices, anyway). But cheese, pâté, terrines, salami, party meats — these all pair well. Most parties I go to serve pretzels and chips, which will go well with the wines recommended below (and remember, if folks are going to drink a lot, they need to have food in their bellies).

At my parties, shiraz/syrah, zinfandel, grenache, and cabernet franc tend to be the reds of choice. I like Rosemount Shiraz from Australia, or Bogle, Villa Mt. Eden, and Echelon syrahs from California (each around $10 to $12). For zinfandel, try Peachy Canyon Incredible Red (around $11). Beaulieu Vineyards has been making nice, affordable zins in this price range for the past couple of years, too. For grenache, well, those Southern Rhônes rock, especially the 1998 Paul Jaboulet Aîné Parallèle “45” for nine bucks. For your cabernet franc, there isn’t much down at this price level, but Ironstone Vineyards (from California’s Sierra Foothills) is smooth with a nutty aftertaste (and less than $10 a pop). Pinot noirs tend to get lost in the shuffle, I find, but Echelon makes a nice one (Central Coast appellation). And, as usual, the best way to score values is to find a trusted wine merchant. Ask the guys at Federal, Wine Cellars of Silene, Martignetti, Marty’s, Bauer, or the Wine Cask — their mission is to help you throw awesome parties. That’s why they get paid the big bucks, folks.

When it comes to whites, the main rule is to serve them well chilled. Keep the bottles in ice. I still think chardonnay is going to please most of the people most of the time (which is why it’s this country’s most popular varietal), and Fetzer Sun Dial is a good one. But you can also find really good chenin blancs (Pine Ridge makes an affordable one, which is blended with a touch of viognier), and Villa Maria from New Zealand makes a fabulous sauvignon blanc. Pinot gris are also easy to quaff.

And you may laugh, but rosés (not white zinfandels or fruit-infused wines) always score big. They are fruity and refreshing, and those from southern France (Cahors, Provence, and the Languedoc-Roussillon region) blow people away. People will do crazy things at parties, and although they tend to resist rosés at restaurants and dinners, they will be psyched to see that you’re not afraid to shake things up. Use the force!

Above all, don’t look for complex wines to show off how much you know. It’s a party. Wine is fun. When it comes to parties, “easy does it” are the key words.

David Marglin can be reached at wine[a]

Issue Date: March 22-29, 2001

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